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With RCEP deal unlikely this year, ministers settle for 'realistic' goals

Failing to find common ground, countries look to October round

ASEAN Secretary General Le Luong Minh walk in front of flags as they attend the opening ceremony of the 49th Meeting of the ASEAN Economic Ministers and Related Meetings in Manila on Sept. 7.   © AP

MANILA -- Countries negotiating the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade agreement are poised to miss a 2017 deadline to reach a deal, forcing them to settle for "realistic ambitions." 

Ministers from the 16 RCEP countries ended an all-day meeting on Sunday without a major breakthrough in the talks that began in 2013. They instead tempered their expectations and identified "key elements" to move negotiations forward and reach a "substantial conclusion," said Philippine Secretary of Trade and Industry Ramon Lopez, who chaired the meetings.

 "We emphasized on more realistic ambitions," Lopez told reporters on Monday at the closing press conference of the 49th ASEAN Economic Ministers' Meeting. 

RCEP is the world's biggest trade bloc in the works. But countries have struggled to agree on the percentage of goods to come under the free-trade agreement. The 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are willing to eliminate tariffs for 90-92% of their goods while their dialogue partners offer between over 70% and 100%. The timing of the elimination of tariffs and the products that will be included in the agreement are also still debated.

Lopez said non-ASEAN parties will this month submit their proposals, which will be discussed in South Korea in October, the last round of negotiations for the year. 

"They [ASEAN partners] have to recalibrate and be more realistic in setting their expectations of RCEP so we can really move this forward," Lopez said. 

Even if parties agree on the key elements, he added that "the agreement itself is something that will take time."

RCEP is composed of ASEAN member-states and their regional trading partners Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea.  The 16 countries cover almost half of the world's population and nearly nearly a third of global economic output.

RCEP is widely seen as a rival to the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership, which excludes China, but includes ASEAN member-states Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Singapore, and non-ASEAN members Australia and Japan.

RCEP came into focus after U.S. President Donald Trumped pulled the U.S. out of the TPP when he took office early this year.

ASEAN, eager to deepen trade with neighbors amid growing protectionist sentiments in the West, have called for swift conclusion of RCEP. The latest compromise to accelerate talks "is the last position taken by some ASEAN" members, Lopez said.

Lopez urged parties to agree on key elements soon, so that talks do not drag on beyond Singapore's ASEAN chairmanship in 2018.

"This can take on for so many years if the participating countries will not be changing their current position on matters being discussed," Lopez said. 

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